After a range of controversies and failures, can CBS win back the Star Trek fan community, or are they headed towards a Solo style disaster?
Star Trek licensing has become incredibly muddy, with two distinct brands. This is due to the old Viacom corporation and CBS splitting in 2005. Much like a messy divorce, Paramount took the movie franchise, creating the Kelvin timeline, whilst CBS took control over Star Trek for television.
As you can imagine, this created a minefield over which company owned control of what aspects of Star Trek. It is likely for this very reason that Star Trek Discovery looks incredibly removed from the fan-loved Prime Timeline in which all prior Star Trek shows took place. This is in spite of CBS claiming the exact opposite.
In January 2017, in the run up to the launch of Star Trek Discovery, an ongoing legal dispute with the creators of the fan film Axanar came to an end. CBS was successful in shutting down the largest Star Trek fan film of all time.
The reasoning behind CBS was clear: Axanar had raised $638,000 before going into production. That’s a hefty sum of money and the production level was high enough that it could potentially draw existing fans away from Star Trek Discovery. In addition, CBS set up a series of guidelines to limit the scope of any future fan films.
When Discovery did eventually air in September 2017, developers of the indie game Tardigrades were shocked to discover an uncanny resemblance to design and concept elements that appeared to be lifted from their unreleased game. Both Discovery and Tardigrades involve the concept of giant Tardigrades being used to unlock interstellar travel.
Whilst CBS will more than likely win this lawsuit (assuming it isn’t settled in private), the damage is already done. Whether the corporate giant lifted ideas matters far less than the perception. It is entirely conceivable that this was just a pure coincidence given that the two went into production around the same time. Yet fans are unlikely to see it this way.
Discovery itself has received a mixed reception and stiff competition from Fox’s Star Trek homage series The Orville. Unlike Discovery, The Orville adapted the values and style of storytelling that Star Trek had previously been famous for.
More importantly, there were a number of Star Trek alumni names attached to the series, ranging from actor and director Jonathon Frakes to Brannon Braga, one of the key names behind 90s Trek, serving as both writer and executive producer.
It was clear that CBS needed to course correct.
First came the announcement that there were plans for a number of future Star Trek TV shows. Then in early August came the announcement that Sir Patrick Stewart himself would be reprising the role of Jean Luc Picard for a currently unnamed Star Trek series.
On paper this should be one of the few announcements likely to reintegrate the fan base. There are few characters from the 90s era of Star Trek that are as iconic and beloved as Picard.
While this announcement was largely welcomed by the fan community, there are still many who question whether they’ll get the style of storytelling that they want with the character.
In terms of tone, the writing for Star Trek has been stripped back from the slower more thought provoking types of stories that Trek was once notorious for. Discovery is perhaps best described as more of an action sci-fi adventure series. This leaves a genuine concern as to whether or not fans will get a return to the Star Trek they love or more of the new series that many are less enthusiastic about.
Unfortunately, much of the good will of the Picard announcement was undone recently with yet another cease and desist order from CBS.
This time CBS went after a fan made VR experience by a group called Stage 9. This VR simulation gave fans the chance to enjoy a complete recreation of the Starship Enterprise. It was available for free and produced as a non profit project for fans by fans.
The argument goes that this was most likely due to the company Ubisoft already having been contracted to create the Star Trek game Bridge Crew, although the intent and style of the two productions are radically different. The Stage 9 production was promptly ordered to shut down.
This brings us to the present. CBS is now once again dealing with an outraged fan community, with many taking to social media refusing to support CBS in the future.
It is worth noting that in regards to both Axanar and Stage 9, CBS was legally well within their rights to take action to protect their intellectual property. The real question is whether or not they did so in the smartest way when it comes to building a fan community. Perhaps a smarter tactic would have been to offer to legitimise some of these groups and monetise them as co-productions.
At this point, a return to the Prime timeline and the style of storytelling of the past is highly unlikely.
It would quite likely be a nightmare sorting out the legalities. Instead CBS seems determined to hold its ground and focus on building a new fan base geared towards the mainstream public.
Another issue CBS may be concerned with is the ageing fan base. Right now people in their mid thirties and above are working, they have disposable income and are paying customers. Let’s look ahead: How long will this trend continue? How many fans of classic Trek does CBS believe fall into the the under 25s?
CBS would have run the numbers. They want new Trek to tap into as many people as possible. If they were to make a new series that was heavily tied into existing continuity, they would risk alienating far more people and the show would likely struggle to connect with younger viewers. When Star Trek the next generation was transferred to blu ray it underperformed in sales. Like it or not, CBS needs any new series to reach new audiences
So whether or not the Trek community will continue to support CBS or continue to turn against the company remains to be seen. Ideally CBS needs to find a balance. They need to find ways to appease and appeal to the old fanbase whilst at the same time making their product accessible for future generations and younger fans.
Creating new Trek content shouldn’t need to come at the expense of the older material. With limited information about the profitability of Star Trek Discovery, it’s difficult to say whether or not their strategy is working. If CBS does struggle to create a new strong fan base, then they may need to reassess their policy.